Adam and Jesus
Romans 5 largely consists of two parts. In the first part, Romans 5:1-11, Paul talks about the consequences of justification by faith. After that, in Romans 5:12-21, Paul answers a very important question.
Even though we’re familiar with what Paul wrote about the gospel in Romans and agree with it, when people heard about it for the first time, many were confused.
Their question about the righteousness of God revealed through Jesus’ sacrifice was, “How can just one person’s sacrifice bring about such incredible benefits to so many? How can one person’s blessing extend to all people on earth?”
So in this part, Paul explains how Jesus’ one righteous act of sacrifice results in righteousness for all people. To explain this, Paul compares two representatives of human beings—Adam and Jesus.
Sin, Death, and Our Fate
“...sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Rm 5:12)
This shows us a three-stage chain reaction.
First, sin entered the world through one man: Adam. Second, death entered the world because of sin. And third, death spread to all human beings, because all sinned. So, the order is: the entrance of sin, the entrance of death, and the spread of universal death.
We can easily understand the first two propositions. In Genesis chapter 3, Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and this act led to death as God had warned them.
The act of eating the fruit might not seem like a serious sin, but it resulted in death for Adam and Eve because in disobeying God, they turned away from Him, and, by extension, away from eternal life in Him. Death wasn’t really a punishment from God, but a consequence of sin.
We all know this story well. So, there’s no problem understanding how sin and death entered the world through Adam’s disobedience. However, it can be hard to understand how sin affected all of humanity.
“The many died by the trespass of the one man” (Rm 5:15)
“One trespass resulted in condemnation for all people” (Rm 5:18)
“Through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners” (Rm 5:19)
In these verses, it seems like Paul is trying to lay the blame for the problem of sin and the death of all humanity on Adam. Although we can understand the fact that Adam died because of his sin, it’s hard to understand how his sin affected all people on earth and led them to condemnation and death.
It was Adam who ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was Adam who disobeyed God. Then, why is it that all people were made sinners through his disobedience?
This teaching sounds strange to us because we live in a highly individualized world. Especially in the west, it’s expected that each person takes responsibility for his or her own fault.
Federal head: Adam
To understand this, we need to know how the Bible talks about humanity. The Bible takes a different approach that seems radical to us—an approach of human solidarity. In this approach, the Bible puts more emphasis on ‘community’ than on ‘individuals.’
That perspective is more similar to eastern cultures. Many cultures adhere to the idea that an individual is actually a part of a whole family, tribe or clan.
The idea of solidarity is that you have a relationship with a person in which whatever that person gains or loses, you gain or lose. This same concept is applied when talking about a representative. A representative acts on behalf of those they represent, whether their actions are good or bad.
In theology, this is called “federal headship.” A federal head is a person who represents or stands in for someone else. So, in the Bible, Adam—the first person God created—was the first federal headship that represented all of humanity. That’s why his sin resulted in condemnation and death for all people.
We dislike the idea of someone standing in for us. We might say, “It’s not fair that I should be judged for what someone else did! I should have had a chance in the Garden of Eden myself."
We also dislike not having a say in choosing our federal head. What immediately strikes us as unfair is that we did not elect Adam as our representative.
Nowadays, we elect our representatives based on the democratic process—voting. So, whoever is elected, we recognize his or her authority. We can accept the outcome of our vote because we had a say in the matter.
However, the problem is that we didn’t really elect Adam as our representative. That’s why we feel it is unfair to share the result of his sin. Nevertheless, the Bible says that Adam is a sufficient representative for all humanity because it was God who created him and chose him to be our representative.
Even though we can blame Adam for what he did and think, ‘I could have done better than him in the same situation,’ we should recognize that God gave us the best representative. That’s why we share the consequence of his sin—condemnation and death.
Federal Head: Jesus
What I really want to say about the concept of “federal headship” is that the fact that God deals with us based on our representative is actually very good and liberating news for us.
If we each had to represent ourselves as individuals before God’s heavenly throne, we would have no defense. The Bible says, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Rom 3:20)
No one would be able to prove his or her perfect righteousness before God, who knows everything about us—our thoughts, words, actions and even our motivations.
So, the fact that God sent another representative for us is very good news because if Adam’s disobedience resulted in death for us, then an obedient man, perfectly holy and blameless, would be able to be our federal head as well. He could represent us before the heavenly throne, and through Him we could have the life that we could never enjoy by representing ourselves.
“… For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!… For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! ℗Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Rm 5:15-19)
This is the main point Paul wanted to address in the second part of Romans 5. Here, Paul’s answering the question, “How can just one person’s sacrifice bring such incredible benefits to so many?”
Paul’s answer is that Jesus’ one righteous act was able to result in justification and life for all people because God sent Jesus as our new representative. Adam, our former representative, failed by sinning, and death entered the world and spread to all people.
However, Jesus, the Son of God, the most holy one who is without any fault or defect, came to the world as our new federal head. And, His single sacrificial act of righteous obedience on the cross resulted in forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life for all people on earth.
Now, we can go before God’s throne of grace with confidence, not because we deserve it or have done many righteous things, but because we believe in Jesus as our new, true representative and rely on His righteousness.
In John chapter three, Jesus talked with a Pharisee named Nicodemus and told Nicodemus the reason He came to the world. Jesus said,
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:14-16)
Jesus came to the world to be hung high on the cross and die to give us eternal life in Him. His righteous act resulted in our righteousness. Through His sacrifice and obedience, we were made righteous. All we need to do is recognize Him as our representative and believe in Him.